Posts Tagged ‘Tracking’

I haven’t had the chance to get out badger watching this week.  I’ve been continuing work on my shelves (and very nice they look too) and we had a dinner party last night, so the badgers have taken a bit of a back seat.

It was a bit of an effort to get out of bed at 6.15am on a Sunday morning, but worth it.  We had rain of biblical deluge proportions here yesterday so the ground is nice and soft – ideal for checking out tracks and seeing what’s been happening around the area.

The soft ground meant that I was able to follow the trail of the local badger for longer than ever before.  This time I stopped being lazy and did what I should have done ages ago – I measured the tracks.

The idea behind measuring the tracks is to see if I can recognise individuals by their footprints.  If you had a badger with a noticeable injury to its foot, or a strange walking pattern, then you could recognise it easily.  With a normal badger it is more difficult to tell their tracks apart.  My approach is to measure print size and stride and use these measurements to try to recognise individuals.

Measuring the stride length of a badger

Measuring the stride length of a badger

Of course, print size and stride length are not constant – they vary with ground conditions and terrain, as well as the gait and speed of the animal.  It is a maxim that a footprint is not a record of the animal’s foot.  It is a record of the interaction between the animal’s foot and the ground.  On soft ground the foot will sink in deeper and the print will be larger, plus the animal’s toes may splay out and increase the size further.  On harder ground the print will be smaller.  For this reason a single measurement would be an inaccurate guide to the identity of the animal.  A better approach must be to take a number of measurements and take an average.

In the photo below, the badger tracks are almost registered (rear foot on top of front foot) which shows the badger was walking at normal speed.  This helps to keep the measurements consistent, since I can look for this track pattern in the future and know the speed of the badger.

Measuring the width of badger tracks

Measuring the width of badger tracks

I took my width measurements across the four largest toes.  These are the most easily distinguishable part of a badger track so it’ll be easy to measure this again in the future.

For the record, I measured the width and stride length of seven consecutive prints today.  The average width was 5.2cm (front and rear feet the same) and the average stride length was 39.25cm.

This isn’t a huge sample by any means, but it should be a reasonable accurate baseline measurement for this individual badger.  I’ll take more measurements each time I go out, and see how consistent it is.  Over time I should be able to recognise this individual and also spot any different badgers in the area.

This may sound like a lot of effort to go to.  It probably is.  But then again, it is a way of using tracking to build up detailed and accurate information about the badgers in my area.

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Badger tracking

Badger tracks

Badger tracks

You may recall that I dealt with a roadkill badger a couple of weeks ago.  I was concerned that the badger had been killed next to a field that forms part of my usual Sunday morning tracking/ birdwatching walk, and I hoped that the dead badger wasn’t the one that I had become accustomed to tracking.

Well, I went for my usual Sunday walk this morning, and I’m pleased to say that the badger is alive and well and still making tracks.

Tracking really is a fascinating activity.  I spent an hour totally absorbed by the animal tracks in a hundred yards of footpath up one single field.  Over the last 24 hours a badger, a fox, several Chinese Water Deer and a small herd of fallow deer had all walked up this path.  It was a tracker’s heaven!

We’ve had a combination of rain showers and sunshine recently, so the normally hard-packed clay in this field is soft in places, but still firm in others.  Many of the tracks showed up only as smudges in the fine silt on top of the clay.  In a strange way it is more satisfying to find and follow these faint images.

Here’s another set of badger tracks.  Note the claws on the front paw on the right.

Badger tracks 1

Here’s where the fox and badger walked side by side (actually, the fox was there first – on the next set of prints I found that the badger’s track overlay the fox’s)

Badger and fox tracks

The badger’s front paw print is on the top left, its rear paw on the bottom left and the fox on the right.

Who would have thought that a short stretch of path could prove so interesting – and so informative.  If you’ve never tried tracking then give it a go next time you’re out and about.  It really does add an extra dimension to your knowledge of the wildlife in your area.  And it’s great fun too!

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Once again, things are busy at work, and I’ve been all over the country in the last couple of weeks, bringing business psychology to the masses and having little time for wildlife at home.

Today being Sunday though, I had time to get up early and go on my regular ‘dawn patrol’ walk around the fields and woods just as it is getting light.  It’s a great time to be out watching wildlife, and as long as you don’t mind getting out of bed it gives you a whole extra part of the day.

7.00am found me sitting with my back to a tree, looking over a ploughed field.  The usual gaggle of rabbits were out and about, a muntjac peered at me from the hedge, and a large flock of rooks was circling over the woods.  As the light grew though, the main object of interest was a trio of Chinese Water Deer meandering around the field.  Their tawny coats were surprisingly well camouflaged against the sandy soil.

Chinese Water Deer seem to be figuring in my thoughts a lot at the moment.  They seem to be more numerous in the local area than I imagined.  I think some of this has to do with my familiarity with them – a few years ago I would have classed all small deer as ‘muntjac’ and thought no more about it.  Now I can recognise the CWD for what they are and distinguish them easily, and I smile at my past foolishness.

Unfortunately, when it comes to tracking, I’m still quite naive.  I still tend to class all small deer tracks as ‘muntjac’ and think no more about it.  In fact, I’m doing exactly what I used to do with visual sightings.

The problem is, the tracks of muntjac and CWD do look very similar. I could be looking at a field full of what I think are muntjac tracks, and they may actually be CWD.  Or vice versa.  For someone like me, who likes to be accurate, even on meaningless things, this is an important point.

Chinese Water Deer Tracks

Chinese Water Deer Tracks

The classic reference book of tracks, Animal Tracks and Signs, by Bang and Dahlstrom, doesn’t even mention CWD – I suppose they aren’t really common outside the Southeast of England (and China, of course).

The Hamlyn Guide to Animals – Tracks, Trails and Signs, my other preferred guidebook, says that CWD prints are very wide and splayed.  The problem with this is, it’s wrong.  The prints are actually quite small and neat.  I know.  I’ve spent the morning watching the deer and then walking up and looking at their tracks.

So, I’ve got a problem.  It is difficult to tell the deer apart from their tracks alone.

The answer, I think, is to look at the trail as a whole, not at individual tracks.  The trail of an animal is as characteristic as the shape of its feet.  This is the approach recommended by Paul Rezendes in his book Tracking & The Art of Seeing.

This is where my tracking stick starts to come into its own.  A tracking stick is a walking stick used in tracking.  The main use of a tracking stick is to establish the stride length of a given animal, and knowing this, predict where the next track should be.  The tracking stick helps you to narrow down the search area so you can find every single track. I tend to use my tracking stick as more of a simple measuring tool.  I have marked it in 10cm intervals and it has a 10x1cm scale attached.  This allows me to make rough and ready (but reasonably accurate) measurements in the field.

Measuring deer tracks with my tracking stick

Measuring deer tracks with my tracking stick

Here’s the clever part.  Having come across a new set of tracks, I can measure the stride length.  I did this for one trail, and found the strides to be 32cm to 38cm long, with most around the 36cm mark.

Looking at the guidebooks, they give a typical stride length for muntjac as 25-30cm, and for CWD as 30-40cm.   This means that my deer, with a stride length of about 36cm, falls outside the range for muntjac, but well within the range for CWD.  Based on stride length alone, we can say with some confidence that the trail has been made by a CWD rather than by a muntjac.

This is exciting stuff.  Although I would struggle to differentiate between the two deer based only on the shape of their footprints, measuring and comparing stride length makes it quite easy to do.

As with anything, there are complications to using stride lengths and gait patterns to identify a species.  Is the deer running or walking?  Is it full size or half-grown?  And so on.  But I like it as a technique.

An awful lot of the information available about tracking today seems very ‘spiritual’ and mystical.  I have no problem with this, and I respect anyone who can use it in this way, but it is not for me.  I earn my bread and butter as a scientist, and although I like to get away from work as often as I can, I can never quite turn off my scientific reasoning.

This is why I like this measurement approach – it is scientific and can easily be applied and tested (unlike many ideas connected to tracking) and it appeals to my use of data and facts.  I’ll see if I can make more use of it over the coming months.

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It is definitely autumn.  It hasn’t felt like we’ve had much of a summer this year, but the seasons are definitely turning.  The blackberries are in full flow, the leaves are starting to turn on the horse chestnut trees (always the first to get leaves and the first to lose them) and the evenings are drawing in.

Sadly, the badger watching season is coming to an end for me.  Badgers don’t hibernate, so they’ll be out and about all winter, but it is now pretty well dark when they emerge from the sett.  Fine for the badgers, not so fine for badger watching.  I may try and see if I can watch them using an artificial light – red light is not supposed to bother them very much – but I’m always wary of disturbing them.

Today I’ve been for a wander around the woods and fields.  All the summer crops have now been harvested, so everything is looking a bit bare.  No doubt the badgers are hard at work getting in their harvest, eating as much as they can and putting on as much weight as possible for the leaner months ahead.

Badger dung with elderberries

Badger dung with elderberries

The badger dung in one of the latrine sites was dark red and a mass of pips, a sign that at least one badger has been gorging itself on elderberries.  Apparently elderberries are edible for humans, but I’ve tried them and they aren’t very nice.  I’m happy to leave them to the badgers.

I visited the far end of the wood today in search of the neighboring badger setts that I am sure are there, based on my mapping of latrine sites and territories.  Sure enough, about 700m from the main sett I came across what looks very like a badger hole.  This fits in very nicely with my estimate of 350m for the radius of a badger territory.

Unfortunately the rain had washed out any tracks from the vicinity, but the hole looked badger-ish to me.  There were old dung pits nearby, and some fairly well-used paths.  Of course, the only proof would be to go there one evening and see if a badger comes out of it.

The interesting thing is that this is a single hole, compared to the dozen or so holes at the main sett.  There has been a fair amount written about subsidiary setts – setts connected by kinship to a main sett, so I wonder if this is an example.  To be honest, I’ve always found the literature on main, outlying and subsidiary setts a trifle confusing, but I’ve got a reason to go back and re-read it now.  I’ll also try and get down here one evening and see what happens.

The new badger sett

The new badger sett - note the spoil heap and paths

As I was sitting contemplating this new sett, a Chinese Water Deer wandered up.  These are small deer, about the size of a muntjac, but more graceful.  Their most distinctive feature is that they have two long ‘fangs’ or tusks on the upper jaw, which gives them a strange, vampire deer appearance.  My camouflage jacket was obviously working today because this one wandered to within about 15 feet of me.  Chinese Water Deer are less common than the other species around here.  Like so many unusual species they were introduced by the Duke of Bedford in Woburn and subsequently escaped.  Now it’s estimated that the UK has something like 10% of the total world population, so they have obviously become scarce in their native country.

Elsewhere, I’m still practising my tracking.  The field behind my house is great, as the sandy soil is always full of the tracks of rabbit, muntjac and roe deer.  This evening I came across what looked very much like badger tracks.  This in itself is not unusual, but they must have been made this afternoon, as the heavy rain this morning washed out all last night’s tracks.

I'd swear this is the forefoot of a badger - look at the claws - but from the freshness it was made this afternoon

Looks like the forepaw of a badger to me!

Does this mean that my local badger has taken to wandering around in the daytime, or have I misidentified the tracks?  There’s still more work for me to do on my tracking.  If nothing else, it’ll keep me occupied over the winter.

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Just to follow on from the last post, here’s another of the tracks I believe were made by a stoat.

I'm pretty sure it's a stoat track.  Scale in cm.

I'm pretty sure it's a stoat. Scale in cm.

This one was obviously made when the mud was very soft or even under water, as it lacks details of the claws etc. The shape, particularly of the rear pad, is very similar to the stoat tracks in the guidebooks. Of course, if anyone knows more, feel free to leave a comment.

Watch this space. I’ll see if I can get more after the next spell of wet weather. Shouldn’t have to wait too long…!

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As an antidote to my increasingly desparate attempts to watch badgers, I’ve spent the afternoon having a gentle stroll around the area, tracking wildlife and picking blackberries.

Roe Deer track

Roe Deer track

I’m really getting into tracking at the moment. As well as being a fascinating activity in it’s own right, it offers a window into the movements of all sorts of wildlife. I’m still very much a beginner at tracking, but I’m finding it very rewarding. Tracking, I suppose, is a bit like reading. I’m at the stage where I can recognise individual tracks, or words, and I’m just starting to put them together into full sentences. A lot of the skill in tracking comes from looking, really looking, at the little details, and when you start to notice these, the picture starts to come into focus. A walk in the country becomes almost like reading a book of what the animals have been up to.

Let me give you an example. I’ve been able to recognise badger tracks for years, but it’s only in the last couple of weeks that I realised that a badger regularly uses the path down the field behind my house. It walks down the path at the start of the night, and walks back up the path some time later on. It’s an adult badger, and it doesn’t run, it walks at a normal badger pace. I’ve never seen this badger, but I’ve tracked it enough times to know its routine.

Assorted tracks in the mud

Assorted tracks in the mud

The soil in the fields behind my house varies from clay at the bottom of the hill to pure sand at the top, so it’s an excellent place to learn about tracking. The clay soil dries hard, so the animals leave very little trace, but where it is damp it gives very clear prints. Today was dry, but there were pools of mud in the ruts left by a tractor. I spent a happy twenty minutes sitting looking at these.

It may seem like just a patch of mud, but if you spend time really looking, there is a story there waiting to be told – a time capsule of the comings and goings of the wildlife over the last 24 hours. In this one little patch there were the tracks of two Roe deer, several muntjac, a fox, and what I think is a stoat.

Readers of the blog may be aware of my long-standing desire to watch stoats in this area, and my utter lack of success in doing so. One of the reasons that I am so interested in tracking is because it may help me to get closer to these elusive animals, help me to understand the habits better and ultimately to allow me to watch them going about their business.

Like I say, I’m still a beginner. There are lots of unawswered questions still. Where did the stoat go after hopping through the mud? Where does the badger come from before walking down the field? The more I learn, the more I’ll be able to answer these. In the meantime though, tracking makes a walk in the country much more enjoyable, and as the evenings start to close in and it gets too dark for badger watching, I’ll have a new excuse to wander about the field and hedgerows at the weekends.

Possible stoat track

Possible stoat track

For anyone interested in tracking (and I’d recommend it as a pastime to everyone who is interested in wildlife) have a look at Pablo’s tracking pages here. This is what got me started on the whole thing.

I spent a happy couple of hours strolling about, looking at tracks, watching the buzzards soaring overhead and picking blackberries. The blackberries seem very prolific this year, and in a couple of hours yesterday and today I’ve picked about three kilos – enough for another serious jam-making session.

A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon stroll. I just goes to show what there is to be discovered outdoors if you’re willing to go and look for it.

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I seem to have developed an unhealthy interest in badger dung.

Let me explain. When I first started watching badgers, I made a conscious decision to stick with one sett and focus on that. There are at least two, possibly three, other setts that I know of (or strongly suspect) in the local area, although I don’t know their exact locations. I know they are there because I’ve seen badgers on the roads or other signs, and they’re too far off to be ‘my’ badgers.

I decided to stick with the one sett because I wanted to really get to know one clan of badgers. Only by fully understanding how this sett works as a social group could I learn about the details of badger behaviour. Jumping from one sett to another and watching different groups of badgers would be fun, but I’ve always felt that it would dilute my understanding.

I’ve reached the point now though where I want to understand how ‘my’ sett fits into the bigger picture of setts in the area – how they interact, movement between setts and so on. Hence I’ve just spent an afternoon looking for badger dung.

Badgers are territorial. Each family or clan controls its own territory, marking it out as its own property. This marking is most visibly done with dung. Badgers are quite fastidious, and they tend to deposit their dung in specific ‘latrine sites’, typically located on the boundaries of their territory. If you can locate these sites, you can map the boundary points and hence the area controlled by a particular sett.

Badger latrine site

Badger latrine site

I spent about three hours wandering up and down the footpaths around the wood, and I’ve mapped out six latrine sites to the east, south west, west and north east of the sett. The distance from these the sett is 300 to 400 metres, with one outlier in the wheat field 600 metres away. This suggests that my badgers are controlling the territory for a radius of 300-400m from their sett.

Of course, this is probably a gross oversimplification. It is most unlikely that the badgers have a perfectly circular territory. Territory size is governed by availability of resources, so it is interesting to note that the latrine sites enclosed an area of woodland (which provides cover and security), plus significant areas of pasture and cereal fields (which provide food). It seems that my badgers are pretty well organised here.

If the latrine sites do represent a boundary between badger territories, this suggests that the neighbouring setts will be something in the order of 600m away, in other words an equal distance from the boundary, assuming the availability of resources is similar. This distance is somewhat higher that the 350m quoted by Neal and Cheeseman, but they were studying badgers in the Cotswolds where resources are likely to be more abundant, and so territories smaller.

So there you have it. An afternoon of looking for dung has allowed my to predict (albeit very roughly) the size of the badgers’ territory and the possible location of neighbouring setts. I’ll carry on working on this idea and see if I can add more detail in the future.

Something else I intend to do more of in the future is tracking. I’ve become intrigued by the idea of tracking mammals, partly as an activity in its own right, but partly also as a way of finding out more about their movements and locations. This could be particularly useful for the rare and shy species, as I can find out what they have been doing without having to be there at the time.

I’ve bought a book on tracking and I’m reading through it at the moment, but I’ve already discovered that it is more difficult than it looks. It rained heavily this morning so any tracks outside the wood have been washed out, and inside the wood the patches of ‘printable’ ground are few and far between. The best I could do was to find a few confused deer tracks (the tracks were confused, not the deer!) and the odd partial badger print.

These badger prints were the closest I got to the stripeys all evening. I watched the eastern side of the sett from 7.00pm to 8.40pm without seeing so much as a black and white nose. They may have come out of another entrance without me being able to see them, as the view is limited on this side of the sett. Perhaps they’re playing more tricks on me. Either way, no pictures of badgers for this post!

It’s been a good day though. Like I said, there’s enough to learn about badgers to keep you busy for years!

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